Today, a historic event occurred: Pope Francis officially released the Vatican’s Encyclical addressing climate change and social justice in religious, ethical and moral terms. This document, one of the most sweeping issued by the Vatican in its recent history, officially commits the Catholic Church to fighting manmade climate change as a religious mandate. The Pope has also set out the Biblical basis for reversing climate change–the argument being that God entrusted the Earth to humans for its conservation and stewardship, and that rapacious exploitation of it is a moral evil. It’s not just the Pope saying this. Many other religious leaders across the world are lending their voices to his chorus. For example, over 300 Jewish rabbis, from every denomination of Judaism, have signed a letter expressing basically the same thing. This is historic because it’s the first time one of the largest and most important institutions on planet Earth, the Catholic Church, has lined up against climate change not because of practical, economic or utilitarian arguments, but for moral and ethical reasons. We must fight climate change not only because it threatens our existence, but because manmade climate change is a moral evil.

I think the Encyclical is historic because it may be the pivot point in the history of climate change that resembles a similar pivot point in another contentious history: that of slavery in the United States. Indeed, the campaign against climate change is beginning to look, in my opinion, more like the abolitionist movement all the time. In the late 18th and early 19th century, abolitionists–people, usually deeply religious Christians, who opposed the institution of slavery primarily because it was a moral evil–started out as a fringe movement, a group of fire-eating “radicals” who thundered against slavery in their tiny New England churches to mostly sympathetic crowds. In the 1840s, however, abolitionism began to catch on in the mainstream, mainly because of the Mexican War and the problems it caused regarding slavery. By the late 1850s the abolitionist position was firmly entrenched in American politics, at least in the North. When the Civil War began in 1861–and especially after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862–abolitionism became the committed political and military policy of the United States government, which ultimately succeeded in banning slavery through the 13th Amendment passed in January 1865.

garrison by jocelyn 1833

Newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison elucidated a moral case for abolition similar to that used by Pope Francis to address climate change.

Before abolitionists got into the act, there were plenty of non-morally-based arguments against slavery that had been around a long time. Slavery was economically disastrous, trapping producers who used it–typically in agriculture–into precarious reliance on unstable crops. It was environmentally deleterious, and also socially destructive; white slave societies in the U.S. South and British West Indies were terrified of slave revolts and expended huge amounts of capital to guard against them. These arguments are structurally similar to the non-morally-based arguments against fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are economically unreliable and precarious, increasing political and financial instability in countries dependent upon them; oil is a magnet for conflict, especially in the Middle East; the costs for guarding against sea level rise and cleaning up after climate change-related disasters is grotesque and unsustainable. This is where most of the policy talk about climate change has been since 1990, when the IPCC first got going.

Francis’s Encyclical, however, changes all of this. All of these practical and economic arguments are still persuasive, just as the similar non-moral arguments against slavery were. But the Pope is now saying, yes, that’s all true, but the main reason to fight climate change is because the burning of fossil fuels is immoral. This is the equivalent of William Lloyd Garrison publishing the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston on January 1, 1831. Garrison certainly agreed with the practical and economic arguments against slavery, but that’s not what moved him. What moved him was that slavery was wrong. He was convinced others felt the same way and that their position would eventually win out. He was right. So is Pope Francis.

abolitionist meeting

Abolitionist organizations, such as this one from New York which included Frederick Douglass, also crossed over into advocating for racial equality and feminism.

Garrison and many of the abolitionists came from a religious background, steeped in the reform movements of the early 19th century, that saw social justice as a commandment to action. (Padre Steve, a fellow history blogger I greatly admire, has a wonderful recent article on the religious motivations of abolitionists, here). This is also true of Pope Francis’s allies. Millions of people of faith, many of them young people, are motivated to fight climate change for primarily religious reasons. The assumption that religious institutions, especially in America, are usually indifferent or hostile to environmental issues is simply flat-out wrong. More churches in the U.S. support doctrines that emphasize environmental responsibility than those who oppose it or are silent. Add to this Francis’s explicit linkage of climate change to income inequality and the duty–shared by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others–to care for people less fortunate, and you see immediately the strong religious backing that Francis’s action has, to say nothing of agreement with his goals by wide majorities of secular society as well.

What does the fossil fuel industry think of the moral argument against their businesses? In a word, they’re terrified. Over the next weeks and months we’ll probably get our fill of hysterical reactions to the Encyclical from climate change deniers and surrogates of the fossil fuel industry–they’ve already begun–but privately fossil fuel supporters admit they have no viable comeback to a moral judgment against them. Case in point is fossil fuel industry advocate Alex Epstein, an Ayn Rand-style Objectivist, who wrote a book last year called The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels–essentially a Bible of talking points that fossil fuel supporters hope valiantly will gain traction against the moral judgment of society at large that is rapidly crystallizing against their industry. Employing another historical analogy, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels resembles the defensive pro-slavery ideology espoused in the 1850s by politicians like James Henry Hammond, which frequently employed a “mudsill theory” argument as to why slavery was natural, moral and should be accepted–and even why it was supposedly immoral to oppose it. By the time those arguments were developed, the moral pivot on slavery had already been reached, and they were as ineffective as whistling against a hurricane. I believe exactly the same thing is happening with climate change.

pope francis 2013

Pope Francis’s message is quite popular in Latin America and the Southern hemisphere, where most of the world’s Catholics live.

But those kinds of arguments will persist, and will certainly intensify as the Vatican’s campaign against climate change gets underway. A particular pitfall of environmental justice is its opponents’ tendency to want to frame it in terms of personal virtue, that the behavior of rank-and-file individuals, without reference to institutional or societal conditions, is the sine qua non of environmental responsibility. The way this argument works is this: if Pope Francis says fossil fuel burning is immoral, but he ever travels by plane or car ever again at any single moment for the rest of his life, his entire message should be dismissed because he’s being a hypocrite. I talked about the dangers of those sorts of reductionist arguments in my article on Earth Day. The Pope is elevating the debate by keeping the focus on institutions and collective responsibilities, not the token efforts of individuals. This too is a turning point in the public discourse on climate change. It won’t change opponents’ disingenuous arguments, but it may well help them achieve the irrelevance they deserve much more quickly than they otherwise would without a high-level champion like the Catholic Church drawing attention to the broader issues.

The simple truth is that Pope Francis is right, and almost everyone knows it. The burning of fossil fuels and the dependence of our society upon them is immoral. It’s an affront to God, inimical to human rights and values, and a desecration of the Earth upon which we depend for everything. Francis is also correct that it will take a moral and conceptual revolution in the minds of human beings, of whatever faith (or no faith), to change our broken system. Fighting climate change is the abolitionism of the 21st century. It’s worth quoting, in this 21st century context, what Garrison wrote nearly 200 years ago in the first issue of The Liberator:

the liberator 1831 pd

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.

The header image incorporates a photo of Pope Francis by Flickr user Edgar Jimenez which is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license, and the header is relicensed under the same. The other photo of Francis is attributed to and is also used under Creative Commons 2.0.